On Being an Israeli in Israel

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The Supreme Court sitting in its capacity as the High Court of Justice last week rejected a request by a group of Israelis led by Professor Uzzi Ornan that it declare them members of the Israeli people and that it allow them to change the registration in their identity cards of the ethnic group (“nationality” or le’om in Hebrew) to which they belong from “Jewish” to “Israeli.” The ruling stated that the issue was not one for the court to decide and that there was no proof of the existence of a uniquely “Israeli” people.

The decision by Supreme Court President Asher Grunis and Justices Uzi Vogelman and Hanan Melcer is totally out of touch with the reality of young Israelis who have moved to Berlin because they found the cost of living in Israel unbearable or because they were absolutely fed up with such aspects in Israeli life as the chauvinism of the extreme right, the occupation of the West Bank, the continual wars and the religious coercion. In the Population Registry, they are registered as Jews but, in their passports, they are registered as Israelis; thus, as expatriates, they define themselves as Israelis living in Berlin. Apparently, the Supreme Court wishes to keep this duality intact.

However, irrespective of the issue as to whether or not the Supreme Court has the jurisdiction to rule on such matters, after the justices of the Supreme Court decided to delve into the intricacies of the question whether the distinction between citizenship and nationality is appropriate in a democracy, their verdict is very puzzling. The verdict gives the impression of being ultra-conservative and the Supreme Court justices give the impression of being out of touch with the spirit of the age in which they live. The statement that there is no such entity as an Israeli nation strongly echoes the statement by Golda Meir when she was prime minister that “there is no Palestinian people.” To this day, her declaration serves as an anachronistic motto for this country’s chauvinists, who themselves would no doubt vehemently deny the existence of an Israeli nation.

While both these assertions are statements of denial, the Supreme Court’s suggested alternative does not grapple with the issue: It proposed that the petitioners make use of a previous ruling that allowed Israeli citizens to request that the rubric “nationality” in their identity card be left blank.

If one excludes this issue from judicial definitions or from intricate legalistic argumentation, the fundamental question still arises: What is the meaning of the statement that an Israeli nationality does not yet exist? What are people waiting for, some miraculous crystallization that will take place in the distant future? What more needs to happen before people will recognize that there are Israelis living in the State of Israel? Is not what has been created in this country over the years sufficient for serving as the basis for an Israeli identity? And is it not a sensible idea that the state should be required to register all its citizens as Israelis rather than as something else? What are people afraid of, that a few tens of thousands of Israelis might opt for registering themselves as “Israelis,” thereby placing the rubric “Jew” in second place?

Forty years ago, in a major ruling, Supreme Court President Shimon Agranat rejected the argument that the founding of the State of Israel created an Israeli nationality. Today, when the seat of Supreme Court President is occupied by Justice Asher Grunis, is it still the case that any reference to the issue of nationality must lead people to bury their heads in the sand? Has the concept of an “Israeli” nationality replaced that of a “Palestinian” one? And is the issue of an Israeli nationality a land mine that must be avoided at all costs?

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling supports the Holy Trinity of nationality, ethnicity and religion and that trinity ostensibly protects Israel’s cherished core as the home of the Jewish people. However, even if the state registers all its citizens as Israelis, Israel will still be the home of the Jewish people and the national flag’s colors will not fade. The Law of Return will not be impaired by that change, although it might be that, in the wake of the new registration protocol, the amendment to the Citizenship Law, which prevents Israelis from forming a family in Israel with Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and which thus hurts a large minority group in this country, might be abolished.

Moreover, the change might lead to the opening of the door to citizenship laws similar to those in every democracy. A civic revolution of this order would contribute to a normalization of the concept of citizenship in Israel and, it is to be hoped, to a weakening of right-wing chauvinism, as well as perhaps to the attainment of a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. As has already been shown in many public opinion surveys, most Israelis are prepared to concede territory in exchange for peace. However, many of those who see themselves first and foremost as citizens of the Israeli nation and only thereafter as citizens of Israel might find it very difficult to give up what was promised by the biblical Land Registry Office.

Uzzi Arnon holding his I.D.Credit: Hagai Fried

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